Sunburn by Laura Lippman, Susan Bennett
Published by William Morrow
Publication date: February 20th 2018
Genres: Fiction, Mystery, Suspense
The game in Sunburn begins in a small dead-end town in Delaware when Polly and Adam meet at the only bar/restaurant. Both are staying across the street in a ratty motel, but why are they there? Author Laura Lippman doesn’t waste time in giving us the details: Adam is there for Polly and Polly is there to get away from a tedious marriage and a toddler she doesn’t want to raise on her own. But what’s the endgame for these two? Lippman spins questions as fast she provides answers in this slow burn of a novel.
It’s probably already been said, but the entire time I was reading Sunburn I was picturing Lana Turner and John Garfield (or Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange if you’re younger) in The Postman Always Rings Twice. It’s a noir 1950s movie permeated with an atmosphere of resignation and resentment—and pent-up sexual tension. Here the tension is between Polly and Adam and it does resolve itself, but even as they move into a relationship—one that upends both their plans—neither is being completely honest with the other. In fact, they’re not very honest with anyone, including themselves. This is just one aspect of how Lippman wields ambiguity and nuance like a scalpel—neither is a clear-cut hero or villain, but how thin is the line between the two and which way will they go?
There are two types of mystery novels. One, where the reader is kept in the dark all along and only gets resolution at the end of the book. Then there is the type that lets the reader in on its secrets while keeping the characters in the dark. In Sunburn, we know who and what Polly and Adam are about, but they have no idea about each other, even when they think they do. In addition, there are other cats and mice playing in the field, so there’s uncertainty throughout much of the novel as to who will prevail in the hunt. This works well, but deflates the suspense enough that by the end of Sunburn I was only marginally interested in the outcome. I enjoyed the book, but thought it was a good, not great mystery with great writing and characters.